The curriculum may be a closed book to many governors, says Laurence Pollock, but they cannot ignore the new national framework. Below, Diana Hinds looks at the challenge for primary schools
GOVERNORS HAVE been given huge extra responsibilities in the past decade. The devolution of budgets has left them wrestling with building maintenance and staff salaries. Importantly, they are also now responsible for academic standards and headteacher performance.
So it might be understandable if the curriculum was not a priority for a hard-pressed finance committee chair, worried about the cost of re-roofing the boys' toilets. And why should it be? Simply because what is taught is the core product, the raison d'etre, of any school.
That hasn't made it an easy realm for governors to venture into. Teachers guard against intrusions into this, their professional area. Many of them say the national curriculum is prescriptive and burdensome enough without inexpert lay involvement.
But with the arrival in schools this week of the revised curriculum for 2000, teachers and boards should think again: governors can contribute to this crucial part of academic life.
Hazeldene lower school, in Bedford, offers one model. Its curriculum committee assigns a governor to make a termly "inspection". The focus of the inspection is agreed with the headteacher and and it usually examines a recent development in one area of the curriculum. The governor then writes a report that is then debated by the full governing body.
Headteacher Rob Harris says it could not work unless staff were comfortable with the arrangement. He also sees an important role for governors in carrying messages about the curriculum back to parents. He said: "It's a very clear open-door policy. It gives governors the chance to focus on this important part of school life which would otherwise not get mentioned."
However Dominic Newbould, a governor and specialist in school governing issues at the Open University, believes that it's not enough for governors to come in regularly and be attached to particular subjects.
He insists that curriculum committee members should attend staff training days. Governors must also take advantage of education authority training if they are to tackle curriculum issues. He says: "The curriculum is an area where, sadly, governors remain inexpert and unable to make the contribution many would wish."
Whatever they are doing now, governing bodies will have to gear up for change from September. The creation of a new subject - citizenship - and a national framework for teaching personal, social and health education will throw up fresh challenges.
Martin Baxter, senior standards adviser with Hillingdon, London, believes governors must exploit the new emphasis on citizenship to demonstrate their commitment to such values. He wants governors to press for school councils that include pupils in decision-making. "If students see improvements because they have built something into the school plan they will learn the link between boring meetings and action. Governors should ask themselves if they are involving pupils properly."
No one would disagree with Baxter's admirable aim. But practical issues like budgets, staffing and finance are bound to bring governors back to earth.
Roger Adcock, chair of Tiverton high school in Devon and an executive member of the National Governors' Council, warns: "Schools are facing a crisis over the sheer size of the curriculum. It will not go away and it is going to increase. This will present resource issues for governors."